Memory the Monkey and My Problem with Reading

I am reading two books at the same time.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I am actually reading 9 or 10 books at the same time. But, as per my usual reading style, I have a couple books I am pouring through, while the others are either on hold, or I peck through them slowly like a pigeon on the sidewalk that really isn’t hungry.

IMG_0927The two books I am reading are both influential and important books in their own right. I am reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and simultaneously reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Herein I find my current predicament.

I want to like Jonathan Haidt’s book. I want to like it a lot, but I am struggling with enjoying it. I entered Pirsig’s book somewhat ambivalently. I have heard wonderful things about it, but for some reason unknown to my conscious memory, I began reading it with a bit of skepticism.

It was shortly after beginning Haidt’s book, that I became a bit disenfranchised with it, and although I continued to power through it, I needed a diversion. The diversion came in the disjointed philosophical catharsis of a motorcycle trip across the upper Plains States and into the West.

My problem with Haidt was best described by Mayan Elder Hunbatz Men. Prior to the 2012 “End of the Mayan Calendar”, Men was interviewed about his thoughts on the Mayan calendar and what it meant for the world. During the interview he took a bunny trail to mention problems he saw in Western civilization. His primary critiques were aimed at the influence of Darwin and Freud, and it was these words that stopped me, caused me to drag back the cursor on the YouTube video, and listen again, and again, and again… “I coming now again to speak this…. If you believe you coming from the monkeys, and then you have memory the monkeys. Okay? In Maya it is not in that way work.”

This stopped me, not because I was stupefied by an apparent non-scientific pre-modern concept couched in broken English, or because I found a retreat into some disembodied fundamentalism. I was stopped, because beneath the halting language skills a critique of Western cultural presupposition was being offered. Hunbatz Men was talking about the subtext of our culture with the mythic stories we weave based upon our presuppositions of science and psychology. He saw our world basing its mythic history, and therefore its life guidance, in evolution and sex. So, Darwin and Freud were his targets of critique. This is not a critique of psychology, or of evolution itself, but it was a critique of creating a prophetic voice from “memory the monkey.” Hunbatz Men was that little voice causing my consternation with Haidt. This is not to say that evolutionary psychology has no place as a voice to humanity, but when it becomes the primary answer to human emotion and intelligence development, we have entered the realm of myth. Haidt’s presuppositions include supposed ancient developments of brain processes before man was man, and before pre-history became the illusive, yet certain mythic scientific history of bubbling chemistry and twitching DNA we think we know must have happened in a certain sequence. And so now, Jonathan Haidt tells us with a kind of biblical certainty what our brains were doing 20 million years ago. This is not to say that I do not find value and brilliance in his work, but rather the scientific certainty feels loosely kin to the fundamentalism of certain factions of Islam and Christianity, and yet he is an outspoken critic of the more fundamentalist New Atheists. Yet, here we are forced into believing that the ghost in the machine is a monkey. This forces out most deeper mystical questioning.

Enter stage left Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig is no less atheist and evolutionary in his thinking than Haidt (although significantly less materialistic), but Pirsig is on a quest. Pirsig is looking for himself. His disjointed stories of Phaedrus (his alter ego past self named after the character in Plato’s dialogue by the same name) are references to himself prior to being admitted to a psychiatric hospital and receiving shock therapy. Pirsig’s philosophical ramblings are far less based in scientific studies, but they are filled with science and a sense of mystery and question, and in this acknowledgment of mystery I find comfort from what has begun to feel to me like a scientific fundamentalism – what has been called scientism by some.

And yet, as I outline this tension, I also recognize that I typically love the studies, love the stats, and search for answers in the gaps between it all. But, I certainly do not find comfort in certain presupposed certainties still in theory phase – of that I am certain. Then again, I am not always certain which certainties those are, until I meet them face to face. In this case, I am fine with evolutionary psychology and its theories, but that will not be my formational myth, and I will not be looking for the monkey in the machine.

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